As the SEND Green Paper rightly highlighted, alternative provision undoubtedly sits firmly within the world of SEND (DfE, 2022).
Any professional working in AP or associated agencies will know that children at risk of exclusion because of their “behaviour” will almost certainly have underlying needs that are affecting their learning and wellbeing, and which require long-term support.
Through my experience of working in AP, running a local authority-commissioned outreach service for primary and secondary schools across south east London, these underlying needs will typically be complex and often compounded by a challenging social context.
Many of the young people referred to us are from families who have experienced deprivation and adversity. Most of them are known to a variety of services, including Children’s Social Care. Many families are raising their children under very difficult circumstances, which can include domestic violence, substance mis-use, food/digital poverty, housing problems, and relationship breakdowns.
We are seeing increasing mental health problems among children of all ages, with CAMHS waiting lists at a record high. Typically, these are also young people who have significant gaps in learning, often linked to “hidden” SEND needs which have not been properly understood, assessed, or identified. Unsurprisingly these gaps and delays are contributing to the difficulties the child faces in their school setting.
American psychologist Urie Bronfenbrenner’s Ecological Systems Theory views child development as a complex system of relationships, affected by the many influences within the environment. This includes family, health, and school, entwined with the modern society we are living in and the many pressures this brings.
He poses the theory that all these factors interact and in turn affect how a child grows, develops, behaves, and learns.
This is hugely relevant when it comes to running an outreach service where we are trying to help prevent exclusions from the school “system”. We know it is vital to take everything that may be influencing a child’s behaviour into consideration – including the context in which it is occurring.
Ineffective, short-term solutions
For this reason, the well-established “respite” model tends to provide an ineffective, short-term solution, one which does not address long-term problems.
At its worst, it means children are bounced from one setting to the next, eroding their self-esteem and confidence, disrupting their learning, and distancing them from their mainstream peers.
Many of these young people have experienced trauma, and this process makes it even more difficult for them to build trusting relationships, which can result in them disengaging totally from mainstream education.
We do however see many children who have been removed from mainstream education for a short period of time, and who have been successful in alternative provision. The risk here is that a presumption can then be made that they are “repaired” and can “return”.
I believe that this success is actually testimony to the skill, determination, compassion, and expertise demonstrated by staff in AP, who are able to see past the behaviour and understand that it is actually a form of communication and an expression of vulnerability.
Over time, there is no doubt that the relationships and the support available in AP can indeed have a fundamental impact on the young person, but not in a few weeks, and not in every case.
Traditional thinking around success in short-term placements is that it signals that the child’s needs have been “met” (as if they were thirsty and needed a glass of water) and that they can return to their previous setting, armed with a new set of internal resources, and all the previous problems will magically have vanished.
Sadly, this is often far from the case, and many of these children continue to present significant challenges in the longer term, ending up at risk of exclusion again further down the line. We are always seeing children whose parents believe their success in AP means everything is “fixed”, only to see them “fail” again when back in mainstream.
In my experience this can only be addressed by using short-term placements judiciously, and with realistic expectations. If we believe a child can be successful in a mainstream setting, then we want to work with them and their school in their school rather than remove them.
An effective short-term placement can however ensure that a thorough, comprehensive, and shared understanding of underlying needs is developed. This then puts the child on the right pathway towards a setting that is equipped to meet their needs.
This requires proper multi-agency working, with schools retaining full ownership of the process and the pupil, and with families fully involved and supported.
Most importantly we believe that the children themselves are reliable witnesses to their own experiences, and that their voices must be heard. Most children are capable of expressing their needs if you take the time to listen, and if they can’t tell you then they will show you, providing you give them enough time and space.
The former children’s commissioner Anne Longfield and her on-going Commission on Young Lives recently called for action to end the “culture of exclusion” that her research shows has emerged in recent years (2022).
For us, exclusions are a symptom of something that is not working. Schools, while undoubtedly doing their best in very challenging situations, simply cannot always provide the specialist support needed to unpick the huge complexity of need they are being presented with.
The Green Paper acknowledges that the SEND system is stretched, and that this has tipped over into a greater need for AP to meet the needs of these pupils. Schools and parents face huge challenges accessing assessment from educational psychologists and other professionals.
Education, Health, and Care Plans (EHCPs) can take many months and getting an autism diagnosis can take years. Covid closures and lockdowns have added layers of complexity to already difficult situations. The problems schools are trying to address are not ones they can solve alone.
So what can be done?
For every outreach referral we receive, our priority is to gain as much information as possible about the child, including their family and educational history. Our aim is to try to understand how different factors are influencing each other, and where the systems around the child might be impacting on them personally.
This involves an interactive analysis of everything related to the child’s family circumstances and early background, right through to their learning and cognitive skills. Our team are supported to do this by our own educational psychologist, who provides individual and group supervision to all our staff, as well as CPD. This ensures we are always learning and in touch with evidence-based practice.
We know that one of the best solutions to be found is through training. Over the past four and a half years we have been lucky enough to work with many schools and have trained thousands of mainstream staff on topics such as de-escalation, trauma-informed practice, and attachment theory.
This is impactful – not just because schools tell us so, but because we can see it on a daily basis. We are constantly astonished by the amazing work we see being done by so many talented and committed people in the education system, all “hungry” to get it right for pupils and to make a difference.
The challenges being faced by children, their families and school staff are immense and far more complex than ever before. But by developing a deeper understanding of need and the factors influencing behaviour, taking a theory-led approach, and investing in staff’s knowledge and ability to identify issues – we are seeing positive results.
- Claire Muccio is head of the Primary and Secondary Outreach Service at London South East Academies Trust, which offers mainstream, special and alternative provision at eight schools across London, Kent and Surrey. The Trust’s Outreach Service is commissioned and funded by the London Borough of Bromley and London Borough of Bexley.
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